The first section of “White Tigers” is Kingstons childhood fantasy of living the life of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior—a story that derives from one of Brave Orchids talk-stories. (Note that the fantasy is written in the first-person, in the present tense. For convenience, this summary uses “Kingston” to stand for what might be more accurately described as “the narrator,” “the girl,” or even “Fa Mu Lan.”)
In the fantasy, Kingston follows a bird up into the mountains until she comes to the hut of an old couple, who want to train her to become a great warrior. As part of her training she spends years alone on the mountain of the white tigers, fasting for days and then eating only roots and vegetables and drinking only melted snow. At Kingstons hungriest moment, a rabbit jumps into the fire to sacrifice himself to appease her hunger. Kingstons self-imposed starvation causes her to have hallucinations and revelations about the world.
When Kingston returns from the mountain, at the age of fourteen, her mentors teach her to fight. They also show her images of her family in a gourd of water. In the first scene her parents are arranging, in her absence, her marriage to a childhood friend. In the next scene Kingston watches her husband and younger brother being conscripted and taken away by soldiers belonging to a Chinese baron. The girl yearns to save her husband and brother, but her mentors tell her she is not ready, that she must wait until she is twenty-two.
When Kingston is ready to leave the mountain—when she has learned how to use the magical “sky sword” and is given powerful beads by the old couple—she returns to her parents and vows to go and fight the barons army. In preparation, her parents tattoo a list of grievances all over her back, symbolizing revenge. A white horse appears to carry her, and she dons a mans armor and prepares to lead. The villagers bring what sons they have left to join her army.
Pretending to be a man, Kingston becomes a great warrior at the head of a huge army of peasants. In one of her first conquests, she defeats and then wins over the army of a powerful giant. Her husband joins her, and before long she is carrying a newborn baby in a sling under her armor. Though she is nearly defeated by a powerful genie—she becomes distracted when her husband takes the baby home—she eventually leads the entire population of China to overthrow the corrupt emperor and put a peasant in his place. Finally, she confronts and beheads the baron who had robbed her village of its sons.
The second section of “White Tigers” contrasts Kingstons life in America with her fantasy as Fa Mu Lan. Kingston describes how the Chinese emigrants in America continued to treat women as worthless, how sayings like “better to raise geese than girls” were commonplace. Kingstons own family largely dismisses her accomplishments, such getting straight As in school. Kingston cannot even stand up to a series of racist bosses and businessmen, must less save the people in China, many of whom are dying at the hands of the Communists. In the end, she learns that her weapons are her words, and that she could use them to unite her people—the Chinese-Americans—behind her.
“White Tigers” is probably the most exciting and vividly drawn chapter in The Woman Warrior, and has the feel of a warrior epic. It is drawn from a traditional Chinese myth about a woman who fights in place of her father. (Kingston changed certain facets of the story; in the original myth, for example, the “tattoo” was actually carved into a male warriors back rather than Fa Mu Lans.) Stylistically, this section is one of the more interesting in the book because it is told as if Kingston were actually the warrior herself. At certain moments her “real” persona interjects—instead of refusing food from the old couple, she says she would have demanded chocolate chip cookies—and she foreshadows the later section depicting her “American life.” In other sections she skillfully reminds us that the scenario she is creating exists only in her minds eye. Because she has never even been to China, for example, her depictions of the mountains and the clouds sound almost like paintings she has seen: peaks that are “shaded in pencil” and rocks that look like “charcoal rubbings.”
The story of Fa Mu Lan provides an alternative to the traditional Chinese beliefs—espoused by Brave Orchid and others—about the place of women in society. As the woman warrior, Kingston takes on a traditionally male role, wearing male armor and commanding men who fight under her. She ties her hair up and actually pretends she is a man to intimidate her enemies. It is interesting to note that her weapon, in this fantasy, is a magical “Sky Sword”—not an actual sword that might be heavy or unwieldy, but a sword that she commands through a force of her will.
Yet Kingston, in her fantasy, is not simply taking the role of the male warrior; she is also a female avenger. She has both the ability to give birth and the ability to take life. These dual powers enable her to maintain both her sense of womanhood and her duties as a wife and mother, welcoming her husband into her tent when he arrives. When she is a warrior, she ties up her hair; when she is a wife, she lets her hair down to cover the tattoo of revenge on her back. After she gives birth, she even keeps her newborn baby in a sling under her armor as she fights—the perfect melding of mother and warrior. She has the capacity to love and be gentle—witness the pity she takes on her defeated foes wives—but also the capacity to divorce herself from feeling and emotion, as when she chooses to forget about her brother and husband during her training.
Note also the other role reversals sprinkled throughout the chapter: how Kingstons husband in the fantasy leaves battle to return home and care for her son, how the men conscripted in the army are described as “lowly as slave girls,” or how ladies with bound feet go on to form a mercenary army. The significance of Kingstons fantasy is not that it transcends time and space, but that it transcends the rigid customs and traditions with which she grew up.
The character of Fa Mu Lan serves as foil to the chapter before, in which Kingstons aunts spirit was crushed by the villages rules about women, and the section at the end of “White Tigers,” in which those same rules and customs constrict Kingston in America. Kingstons life in America is depicted in stark contrast to her fantasy. In the fantasy, a woman could be the liberator of a nation; in reality, among the Chinese emigrants, a daughter is a disappointment. In the fantasy, her skills are honed by mentors and supported by her family; in reality, her skills and education are considered useless and even derided by her parents and the community around her. In the fantasy, Kingston beheads the baron who speaks to her about raping and stealing women; in reality, she meekly attempts to stand up to her racist boss and gets fired. Conquering any real enemies—like the Communists in China, who are killing many of her relatives—is simply out of the question.
Kingston is not ready to take on the mantle of mother or wife, either, and rejects the only things her parents think women are capable of. She burns food and refuses to clean dishes. She is repulsed by Chinese women who are entirely dependent on men, whose feet are symbolically bound by their role as mothers and wives. Still, she cannot escape the power of tradition—the ghosts that still haunt her—and is envious of those who, like Fa Mu Lan, are “loved enough to be supported.”
What, then, is the point of Kingstons fantasy? The last few paragraphs of the chapter compare the powers Kingston does have—her words—to the powers of Fa Mu Lan. Like the sky sword created out of thin air, Kingstons words have only as much power as she can give them. The implication is that her words can poke holes through stereotypes, can turn old customs and traditions on their heads, can unite people behind her. In that sense Kingston can become a new sort of “female avenger,” one who can give birth to new ideas but who can also tear down her enemies.